Will John McCain’s Surge Into Online Video Result In Victory?

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Today I review (I know, it’s a really long post) Senator John McCain’s new user-generated video strategy on his website – the “Video Supporter Wall” – which is being touted by his campaign as a key feature to winning re-election in the contested and heated Arizona Senate race. What lessons have been learned since their 2008 online video trouncing from team Obama?

Senator John McCain campaign’s video “Supporter Wall”

Political campaigns from the grassroots to the national level are increasingly using online video to reach and connect with key constituents and constituencies. I’ve recently authored several posts about the growing power of online video in major political initiatives, and on how user-generated video, (or “UGV,” as I like to acronym it), is an excellent means of bringing immediacy and emotional impact to a political campaign effort.

As reporter here earlier, the McCain campaign had hired the professional video delivery network, Sorenson Media, to create a what they are calling their “Video Supporter Wall”. This feature enables visitors to the McCain Web site to easily capture and publish a video message directly from their webcam or camcorder. If supporters don’t have the means to submit a video online, they have the option of stopping by McCain’s campaign office and be recorded.

Corey Vale, Internet Marketing Director for the McCain 2010 Senate campaign acknowledges that “Video is one of the most impactful ways to connect directly with an audience, and we want to be on the leading edge of an accelerating trend toward robust, online experiences.”

My analysis of McCain’s video supporter wall (with tips)

I decided offer up a series of tips/recommendations for what political campaigns should should consider when doing their own UGV program, and to compare my recommendations to my experience with the “Video Supporter Wall” on the McCain website (as it appears at the time I’m writing this article: February 24, 2010.)

Just a few things to keep in mind: My review is not a review of his entire online video campaign strategy. (However I do show how the video supporter wall relates to the larger video strategy.)

I am also basing my review on what are the expressed initial objectives by the McCain campaign. The expressed primary objective of the Website was for Arizona voters to share their support for Senator McCain, and the expressed primary objective of the video strategy was for McCain supporters to directly submit videos from within the John McCain website. (And I do acknowledge that working with your supporters is typically the best place to start any video-based program with a candidate’s election campaign.)

Tip #1: Make it Very Easy to Submit Content

The campaign press release claims that “With just a few clicks, visitors to the site can record a message on their webcam or upload a video to appear on our ‘Supporter Wall.'” This is mostly true. I found no issues at all with uploading the video when I clicked the buttons on the page to do a live recording or upload a video from my desktop. That covers most people’s options, so even those with minimal Internet experience should feel comfortable doing it.

Tip #2: Test Your Solution Beforehand

I attempted to do the drag-and-drop feature twice in the Firefox browser on my Mac, and both times I got the spinning wheel of doom, requiring me to force-quit my browser. I was also unable to even submit anything via the Safari browser on my Mac, which I only learned afterwards about the incompatibility issues with the between my Snow Leopard operating system (the latest version from Mac) and the Java programming language behind the Sorenson Squish video solution (used to program McCain’s Video Supporter Wall).

As an important lesson, you should always test out your UGV solution on different operating systems and browsers before you may any public announcements of its availability. That way if you discover any known incompatibility issues, the responsible thing to do is make your audience aware of them on your video submission page, so people won’t be surprised if they get an error message and are left with an unexplained negative experience.

Tip #3: Engage with Real Two-Way Dialogue

McCain’s Internet Marketing Director has said that “the new website provides a two-way conversation with the voters of Arizona.” (Well, a conversation is supposed to be “two-way,” right?) But I would think that for an actual conversation to be taking place with the video, it would require one party to submit video content, and another party to respond publicly to that content, yes? But that’s not the appearance from the website, since there are no comments being published of what’s going on back-and-forth, whether they could be between the McCain campaign team and site users, and between the site users themselves.

Also, there’s no evidence on the website to show that Senator McCain is receiving and reviewing any of the comments– be it video submissions or anywhere else. A real dialogue could be where McCain answers questions from supporters and the general public, including those submitted via video, and have him give his own comments via video. That would show that the McCain website is more “fully engaging visitors” like the campaign claims in their press release.

Here’s a big recommendation: Set up a time where you can have your candidate answer, on video, submitted questions. Again, make this an exclusive content feature, but which you can still promote via video sharing sites. (Like a short promotion clip with some examples, to pull your audience in.)

Tip #4: Reach out to the Undecided and Non-Supporters

The McCain campaign is claiming the new website and video supporter wall to be part of their new “outreach” program. But outreach in any political campaign is supposed include people who haven’t decided their vote, or have even voted against you in the past.  It’s evident from watching a lot of the videos that they’re not likely to change a Democrat-leaning person’s mind to vote for him (especially considering that some of the video comments by supporters are rather hostile to Democrats.)

Video is really an excellent opportunity to reach out to people who aren’t already in the Republican camp. Don’t miss out on the content opportunity by only limiting your UGV to supporters. By including submissions from others (and moderating them of course), you improve your visibility in the voting community, and will be able to demonstrate your candidate’s openness and transparency.

Tip #5: Showcase the Most Popular Videos

People who submit videos also enjoy seeing how many views and comments they get, just like with most any popular video sharing site. Even better, you can include a special graphic by the videos you want to draw more audience attention to. (Like a “Top Video” award or “Editor’s Choice” award.)

Tip #6: Show Videos of your High-Profile Supporters

The McCain website has been good about including videos of important local folk, such as mayors and sheriffs, and organizing them all together. However, the site is missing videos from people like Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney – both of whom have publicly endorsed McCain’s re-election campaign. Yet they feature a video endorsement from Steve Forbes, albeit only 9 seconds. (Was the guy in a hurry or something?)

I also recommend making your high-profile videos of supporters something unique to the site, so people have to go there to watch the full segment of exclusive video content. (Put up video teaser of that same segment on popular video sharing sites like YouTube, with a hotlink to directly where people can click to watch it.)

Tip #7: Grab Videos of Supporters from the Web

The McCain website is overlooking the many videos from local supporters already on UGV sites like YouTube. One good example is Arizona Fraternal order of police’s endorsement of McCain, and the Young Americans for John McCain. You should always do a search on YouTube and a video search on Google with your candidate’s name to see what’s already out there. Then you can either link to it from your own website, or get the embed code to feature those videos directly on your own supporter wall.

Tip #8: Feature Videos Prominently on Your Home Page

The McCain website forces people to scroll down to the bottom of the home page to find the video Supporter Wall, otherwise there’s no way knowing that it actually exists. Even worse, the site navigation doesn’t include a category label for “Videos.” Any website that leverages online video should always include a navigation category for “Videos” in the website masthead, or anywhere that can be prominently seen on the home page. Don’t make the audience have to struggle to find it.

Tip #9: Put a Call Out to Your Supporters

Most every political campaign will have an email database to draw from. (Believe me, I know. I’ve been on the email database of political candidates I’ve never heard of, coming from political parties I don’t even belong to.) Send out an email blast to your supporters explaining the video support wall you’ve created, and that you would like them to submit a video as well. Clearly explain the benefits to them, and how quick and easy it is to do it. (I also recommend creating a simple how-to video that features both a video screen capture of the entire process; as well as a cameo by the candidate, the candidate’s Internet marketing director, or some high-profile figure.)

And this is where you want to include all supporters of your candidate, not just voters of your area. McCain’s Internet Marketing Director informed me that they are “happy to have videos from any supporters of Senator McCain.”

Tip #10: Allow for Robust On-Site Searching

I found a number of problems with how supporter videos on the McCain website were being organized and indexed.  Here’s a big one: The “Search Videos” function on the McCain website currently doesn’t allow for multi-word search. (I.e., entering more than one keyword in the search box.) Searching for “mayor” brought up all 4 mayors. But when I entered “mayor salem,” and I couldn’t even get the result for the Mayor of Salem! I also couldn’t get any results for mayors when I made my search plural (“mayors”). I brought this up with the Sorenson team, and they agreed that those are necessary updates which will be made soon.

Another problem area is the “Common Video Searches” section on the Support Wall page. These appear to be mostly categories of supporters by their work status, and one character assessment: “Student,” “Sheriff,” “Veteran,” “Integrity,” and “Retired.” But are they really common video searches? Not likely. What they need to do is improve on the categorization by submitter type, issue type, location, date of submission, and even length. That way people can see what are the newest videos from their last search, as well as organize searches by more than one filter. (That may not be a priority now, but if the supporter wall is eventually going to have hundreds or thousands of videos 500 like they claim, then that will eventually become a necessity.)

Improving search results of videos can also be achieved by allowing submitters to tag their own videos. When submitters are uploading their video to the McCain website and entering their basic profile information, they could be given a link to a list of suggested tags, and even encouraged to talk about keyword-relevant subjects. That would also provide a good balance of issues across theirs video supporter wall.  I also recommend including a “tag cloud” on your supporter wall page, so you have a visual/textual representation of what are the keywords of the supporters, and which are more prominent than others.

Tip #11: Make your Videos Discoverable Outside of Your Website

There is clearly no search engine optimization (SEO) strategy behind the video supporter wall, even though it would be ideally suited for it. For part of my test, I Googled several names of the higher-profile supporters, yet found nothing that would point back to the video supporter wall on the McCain Website. (E.g., Googling “mayor evans john mccain video”). That’s because none of these videos have their own pages, and thus can’t be indexed in search results. So if I wanted to Google for information on a key supporter of McCain, I wouldn’t find anything on the video supporter wall, except the single landing page housing all of the videos.

The McCain video supporter wall has been set up as a “walled garden” – none of these videos can be indexable in Google or any other search engine. This is a huge oversight by the McCain campaign. You want to do everything you can to make the videos by your supporters findable to where your target audience (voters) is already congregating. That includes the major search engines and video sharing sites.

I can’t stress this enough to any video-oriented political campaign: don’t act like a “walled garden!” A walled garden is where you make it impossible for people to see your videos anywhere else (even an excerpt), which is especially bad when you haven’t even given a special incentive for people to see it on your website as opposed to a much-more popular video sharing site. Creating a walled-garden video supporter wall smacks of the old-world ideology. You need to go reach out to where your audience is, not just expect them to always come to you. No matter how wonderful your walled garden is, it can’t compete with the public, open Internet.

Granted, Sorenson Media’s Squish program does allow for sharing of the videos via permalinks, embedded code, and email. So at least these videos can be shared with the outside world.

But wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to have these videos optimized for keywords based on actual issues people in Arizona are searching for on the Web? People who are on the bubble will be likely to be going on the search engines to learn about information on a candidate, even more than going on the candidate’s own website. All it takes is creating a basic landing page with each person’s basic information, featuring a title tag and body description including important issue-oriented keywords, so the video landing page can be findable in search queries by other voters.

My recommendation: allow people to watch the videos directly from the McCain supporter wall, and create a special video site map of landing pages of each supporter (and/or supporter groups), with the video content embedded in them.

Also, if you want to increase the popularity of your video Supporter Wall, you need to get important backlinks to your site. Encourage any supporter sites to link to your video supporter wall page, and encourage them to submit their own videos as well.

Tip #12: Have a Video Studio in your Campaign Office

You want to give an extra incentive for supporters to come to your campaign office in person. You can achieve that simply by setting up a designated area, with good lighting, with a decent camcorder that has a shotgun microphone or lapel microphone. (Campaign offices can get pretty noisy.) If people can see a good-quality video, they will be more likely to stop by in person, since they want to look good on camera themselves.

Tip #13: Showcase Video on Popular Social Network & Video Sharing Sites

The website does include links to McCain’s YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter pages. However they certainly have not been inclusive at all of their supporters on any of these social networking sites. Not a single video on the McCain Supporter Wall is featured on the McCain’s YouTube channel. (Side note: The YouTube channel is still giving primary screen estate to his 2008 campaign! That needs to be updated, guys.) I also couldn’t find any mentions of new videos in the Twitter feed or his Flickr account (which does also accept videos up to 90 seconds), and the Facebook fan page appears to have disabled videos!

Each submitted supporter video is also an opportunity to create a new video channel on a popular video sharing site (which could be labeled something like, “Supporters of John McCain”) outside of your own website, and include a link back to your website from there, encouraging people to submit their own video. (And they could even submit more than one – why not?)

Tip #14: Include Guidelines for Quality File Specifications

On your submission page, you should include information on what’s the best way for people to upload their video, so it looks as good as possible in your own video player. The McCain site doesn’t let you know beforehand what the allowable file formats are before you upload a video, or what recommended dimensions to make your video in (so it doesn’t look unusual with scaling). You don’t want the final video piece to appear unusual from the submitter’s original piece, and leave them with a less-than-positive viewing experience.

Tip #15: Group candidates together

Even if you’re a county-level candidate with minimal funds, you can pool your financial resources with other local party candidates to get a UGV solution and host your own “communal” video supporter wall. This way you are also showing party unity, a strong slate of candidates, an increased amount of supporters, and have a professional site to feature all of your video. (And it can also be an excellent means to raise donations for.) So consider bundling a UGV solution with a group of candidates, and work with your local political party organization and group donors to help support it both financially and with submitted content.

User-generated video – the sleeper solution for political campaigns?

The McCain website and video supporter wall is a good start, which I hope to see grow with the primary and general elections in the months to come. Sorenson Media has also informed me that they are already working on the video solutions for other political campaigns from the grassroots levels on up. I predict 2010 will be an exciting year for seeing the emergence of user-generated video and other professional video solutions in political campaigns. Whether you’re a conservative or progressive, Internet video is proving itself more to be both the future and present situation for running a successful election in American politics.

Yes, the McCain campaign has expressed that the video program is very early in its release, just like the new Website. However I would caution that anytime you make promotional claims in a press release or anywhere publicly, you will open those claims up to scrutiny. You also need to make sure you distinguish your claims from where you are now, versus  projections from where you expect to go – and not express everything like its an existing reality.

I congratulate Corey Vale and the McCain campaign of taking a serious step with their video initiatives, and they do acknowledge that they have a long way to travel to reach their goals with video. Fortunately there’s ample time between now and the elections, so hopefully they can progress with their video supporter wall, and their overall video initiative, from being just a decent example to becoming a great one that political candidates and their campaigns can learn from.


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